[A]t the core of both ancient thinking and ancient society was the assumption of natural inequality. Different levels of social status, Siedentop argues, reflected what were taken to be inherent differences of being. Crucially, it was this assumption of natural inequality that was to be overturned by the Pauline interpretation of the significance of the life of Christ. As Siedentop expresses it, Paul wagered on human equality and in doing so he set out a Christian understanding of community as “the free association of the wills of morally equal agents”. In essence … Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual seeks to show how this new assumption of the moral equality of humans came, over a thousand years and more, to transform the way in which we conceived of both society and government.
At its heart is the claim that the Christian assumption of moral equality in turn gave rise to a commitment to the equal liberty of all individuals. If this is true, it follows, as Siedentop states, that it was the canon lawyers and philosophers of medieval Europe and not, as has usually been assumed, the writers of the Renaissance and their rediscovery of ancient humanism who are largely responsible for our modern conception of liberty and who therefore can lay claim to having established the fundamentals of modern liberalism.
In an earlier review, Kenan Malik wasn’t quite convinced:
Siedentop usefully challenges the conventional narrative about the development of the Western intellectual tradition. But the story he tells in reframing that narrative is itself deeply problematic. Consider the issue around which Siedentop builds his whole account: the tension between the Ancient belief in natural inequality and the Christian idea of moral equality. Christianity certainly played a major role in developing notions of equality and universal visions of humanity. Yet, ideas of hierarchy and inequality remained central to the Christian tradition. “It is in the natural order of things”, Augustine preached, “that women should serve men, and children their parents, because this is just in itself, that the weaker reason should serve the stronger.” It was given by nature for the lower orders to serve the upper orders. …
Siedentop disregards, too, the distinctiveness of modern notions of equality. Christian equality was tied to religious belief; hence the long and fractious debates about whether non-Christians were equal, or even possessed souls. The crumbling of belief in a God-ordained order helped, in the sixteenth and seventeeth centuries, to develop a new, radical, inclusive form of egalitarianism. Having dispensed with God, there was, as the historian Jonathan Israel has put it, no “meaningful alternative” to grounding morality in a “generalised radical egalitarianism extending across all frontiers, class barriers and horizons.” The new egalitarians drew upon radical strands of Christian thought. But they transformed the very meaning of equality.
(Image of statue of St. Paul in front of St. Peters Basilica, the Vatican, via Wikimedia Commons)